7 Ways to Help Teens Appreciate Differences

All of us are naturally drawn to people who are like us. We feel connected and understood when we find someone else who looks like us, does things the way we do, or has experienced something similar to our experiences. While this is normal behavior, it can lead to discrimination and a lack of compassion for those who are different from us. Focusing on only getting to know people who are like us can cause us to see life through a limited perspective and believe that our way is the “only” way or the “right” way.

Our differences – whether based on ability, race, gender, mental health, sexual orientation, age, religion, culture, appearance, or origin – improve our world. Bringing together people of various backgrounds with different life experiences actually generates more creativity, new ideas and perspectives, and increased productivity. Research shows that understanding and appreciating differences promotes an individual’s cognitive development, mature decision-making, and positive behavior.

The youth of today live in a multicultural, global community that is growing more and more connected through technology. Diversity is a fact of life. We can help youth learn to appreciate differences in the following ways:

1. Be a good role model. You need to make sure your teen is seeing you display the attributes and behaviors that you desire for them to emulate. We cannot embrace diversity by remaining set in our ways, beliefs and thoughts, so be open to new ideas. You should set an example by listening, accepting and welcoming people and ideas which are different from your own. Be mindful of your language; avoid stereotypical remarks and challenge those made by others. Speak out against slurs that target people or groups.

2. Encourage empathy. Empathy is being able to understand how someone else feels, and it’s a skill that requires practice. As you go about your normal life, ask your teen how they think someone else feels in different situations that you see. Whether it’s a sibling they are fighting with, a friend who might be acting strangely, or a character on a TV show, ask them to consider the other person’s point of view. If you think they are incorrect in their assessment, don’t tell them that they are wrong. Instead, say, “that’s an interesting idea; I was thinking that they might be feeling…”

3. Get to know someone different. One of the best ways to improve acceptance is simply exposure to those who are different. Getting to know people different from oneself leads to reduced prejudice and increased understanding. Invite friends from backgrounds different from your own to experience the joy of your traditions and customs. Ask them to share their traditions and customs with your family. Encourage your teen to strike up a conversation with people who are different from them.

4. Introduce diversity. Suggest that your teen reads books by authors from different backgrounds. Perhaps your teen might like an author from a different county or an author who has a disability. At the dinner table, strike up a discussion about how cultures or religions are both similar to and different from your own.

5. Challenge the idea of “normal.” Generally, people are treated differently because they’re seen as “the other.” All of us are born unique with different likes and preferences, so there is no one way to be “normal.” When your teen sees someone who seems “weird” to them, try to acknowledge both differences and similarities in that person. Studies show that ignoring differences can actually make discrimination worse, so it’s a good idea to also point out what we have in common with someone who seems very different from us.

6. Share stories. At gatherings with extended family, encourage storytelling and share personal experiences across generations. Teens can be surprised by how life was different for their grandparents or how an uncle experienced discrimination for a disability.

7. Give facts. Provide accurate information to reject harmful myths and stereotypes. Your teen will hear lots of stereotypes at school; it’s up to you to confront these misconceptions with truth. Discuss as a family the impact of prejudicial attitudes and behavior.

Final Thoughts…

Examining diversity helps teens learn more about themselves as individuals, their family norms and the cultures of their peers. This knowledge supports each student’s psychological and social growth. It also opens up conversations that can break down cultural barriers, eliminate prejudice, stop potential hate and peer violence, and reduce bullying. Research shows that the cognitive effort required for breaking through stereotypes enhances complex thinking and development of values, ethics and character. We should all be striving to create a more compassionate culture for the next generation, so let’s encourage our teens to find ways to accept differences.

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